Ruling Islamists urge Tunisia consensus at congress

AFP , Thursday 12 Jul 2012

Tunisia's ruling Islamist party Ennahda holds its first congress at home in 24 years to discuss political and religious tensions; the head of Hamas Khaled Meshaal was among the foreign invited guests

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrives at the Islamist Ennahda party congress in Tunis, Thursday, July, 12, 2012. (Photo: AP)

The head of Tunisia's ruling Islamist party Ennahda on Thursday called for "national consensus" at the launch of its first congress at home in 24 years, held at a time of political and religious tensions.

"We want to convey a message from this congress, this congress of a union of the Tunisian people. We are a united people," Rached Ghannouchi told the crowd of about 10,000 supporters.

"I want to assure the people that the country is in good hands," he said.

"This country needs a national consensus. We call for national reconciliation," said Ghannouchi, playing down the crises which have shaken Tunisia and its ruling coalition as "normal" for a post-revolutionary state.

"In Tunisia, all movements can cohabitate," he said.

The three-day gathering was being held at a congress centre in Al Karm, a Tunis suburb that in the past served to host meetings of toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's party, now disbanded.

Ennahda (Renaissance) now dominates the government along with centre-left parties the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, which won 33 percent of the seats in the assembly.

"We must combat dictatorship, whether it be in the name of religion or of modernity," said Ettakatol chief Mustapha Ben Jafaar in his speech.

"Our future is in our hands to form a civil society and set up a civil republican regime for a modern state which guards the identity of the Arab-Muslim people," said the former opposition figure.

Some 25,000-30,000 people are to attend the congress, which is also the party's first since it came to power following Ben Ali's ouster in protests that touched off the 2011 Arab Spring.

Among the foreign guests invited are Khaled Meshaal, political chief of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, who received a rousing welcome from the crowd.

The participants also rallied in support of the uprising in Syria. "Bashar, get out!" they chanted, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

About 1,100 delegates will have to determine the party's position on political alliances, as the dominant partner alongside two centre-left parties in Tunisia's tripartite government coalition.

The congress will also seek to reconcile different trends within the party, between moderates and more radical ideologues, even if founding leader Ghannouchi is expected to keep his post.

Moderate Islam

On Wednesday, Ghannouchi reiterated in an online interview that the party wanted to present itself as a "moderate Islamist movement" promising "hope and prosperity" to Tunisian men and women.

Established in June 1981 by Ghannouchi and a group of intellectuals inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda was banned by Ben Ali after a major electoral success in 1989, and its leaders jailed or forced into exile.

Ghannouchi returned in January 2011 after 20 years of exile in London.

His party then won Tunisia's first post-uprising poll, in October.

It took 41 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly, the interim body tasked with drafting a new constitution and preparing fresh elections, due in March 2013.

Made up largely of moderates, Ennahda said in March that Islamic sharia would not be inscribed in Tunisian basic law, much to the relief of its coalition partners, who feared the Islamist majority in parliament might open the door to a theocracy.

"Finally, after 40 years of prison and exile, we are reunited," Ennahda official Riadh Chaibi told the crowd in Al Karm, to roars of approval. "We pay tribute to the martyrs of the movement."

The challenges facing the government are wide-ranging.

Tunisia's latest political crisis -- and deepest so far -- came just last month, when Jebali ignored President Moncef Marzouki's opposition to the extradition of former Libyan premier Baghdadi al-Mahmudi.

The row between Jebali and Marzouki, a member of the CPR, exposed the uneasy nature of the governing coalition.

Tunisia is also regularly shaken by social unrest.

The party aims to reduce unemployment, a driving factor behind the revolution, to 8.5 percent by 2016 from around 19 percent now, but with the economy still struggling to recover that is a sensitive issue.

Ennahda has also struggled to clarify its line on the Salafists -- hardline Islamists who have grown more confident since the revolution -- with recent violence sparking criticism that it has done too little to stop them.

The Salafists went on the rampage in mid-June, torching police stations and political offices, after taking issue with art works at a Tunis exhibition they deemed offensive to Islam.



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